Business books can help you boost your career. They're a cheap, easy route to professional growth. Ignore the skeptics who tell you there is nothing in them. Most have value, and the following – my annual list of top business books – have many insights, packaged in easy (or relatively easy) writing styles. Read them carefully, take notes, and put the ideas into practise.
The top two books focus on decision-making. That wasn't deliberate but given the importance of decision-making, for individuals and organizations, it's convenient.
1. Creating Great Choices by Jennifer Riel and Roger Martin: The former dean of the Rotman School of Management and his long-time collaborator provide a handy guide to integrative thinking. They stress the importance of not just grabbing the best choice that comes to mind but actively seeking out opposite possibilities and combining them into a great solution. The concept is easy to grasp but they take it further, actually showing you how to do it.
2. Red Teaming by Bryce Hoffman: The journalist-turned-consultant explores the new world of red teaming, where governments, spy agencies, and corporations are guarding against group think and biases by building in Devil's Advocates who have licence to challenge prevailing thinking and new proposals. Your organization could benefit from a special red team for that challenge but you could also put some of the tips to work in your own team or before you present your next proposal to your boss.
3. Barking up the Wrong Tree by Eric Barker: The incisive blogger takes a fascinating excursion through the research on issues like why valedictorians seldom become millionaires, whether nice guys (and gals) finish last, why trying to increase confidence fails, how to find work-life balance, and other provocative issues. A former Hollywood screenwriter, he guides you with ease through the many research twists and turns, ending each chapter with a climax: How to put the research to use.
4. Athena Rising by Brad Johnson and David Smith: The two professors at the United States Naval Academy argue that for women to rise in organizations, men must do their part as mentors. They probe the barriers – including the tensions between the genders that get in the way – and offer practical guidance for men willing to pick up the challenge. It's an unusual slant on an important workplace issue.
5. The Captain Class by Sam Walker: The book I most enjoyed reading this year, written by the Wall Street Journal's deputy editor for enterprise who set out 11 years ago to find out which were the greatest sports teams in history and what distinguished them from lesser squads. His investigation found it was the captain and his or her leadership abilities that set teams apart. The seven traits he delineates aren't particularly surprising and not necessarily applicable to your workplace – taking intelligent penalties or fouls, for example – which is why the book isn't higher on the list but his story-telling makes the notions stick, which may reinforce them in your own career growth.
6. This I Know by Terry O'Reilly: The host of CBC Radio's marketing show, Under the Influence, makes a smooth transition onto the written page, with his intelligent, colourful story-telling around central issues in marketing. His final chapter is an excellent, practical takeaway, with a punchy series of "This I Know" statements, crystallizing the ideas he has presented and sharing his most compelling beliefs. You don't have to be a marketer to benefit. As with his show, the book explains the world around us, what happens within organizations and with consumers.
7. The CEO Pay Machine by Steven Clifford: The board member and former CEO passionately and analytically makes the case against the outrageous pay packages top executives are receiving. He shows how that pay machine took hold in the 1980s and has been supported by what he calls "the consulting mafia" and board directors without spines, succumbing to a number of delusions he shreds. Perhaps not much you can do about it as an individual but an important book nevertheless. He has a proposal for government that not so strangely didn't make it into U.S. tax reform: For every dollar a company pays a CEO over $6-million, it should pay $1 in tax. It can still pay gargantuan salaries but there would be a penalty.
8. The Schmuck in my Office by Jody Foster: The professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania delineates 10 personality types that drive us nuts and how to deal with them, such as The Narcissist, The Venus Flytrap, The Swindler, The Bean Counter and The Suspicious. Stanford University Professor Robert Sutton's The Asshole Survival Guide is also top flight but I found Dr. Foster's schema and advice more helpful.
9. Pause by Rachael O'Meara: The Google customer service manager's career hit a tailspin about five years ago when she realized her performance was not up to par. So she took a sabbatical, hitting the pause button to reset. She argues that breaks refresh, from a 30-second meditative pause to day-long, weekend-long, or like her, months-long sabbaticals that refresh. She looks at how to get the most out of the different types of breaks.
10. The Best Team Wins by Adam Robinson: The co-founder and CEO of Hireology, which offers software tools to help improve hiring techniques, notes that nobody teaches managers how to hire. He provides a guide, including advice that it's better to hire no one than make a bad hire; your next great hire is likely to have no experience in whatever business or industry you operate; and when evaluating candidates, focus on attitude, accountability, past-related job success, and cultural fit.
The year of the Camino
Books on innovation still continue to pour out of the publishing houses and, of course, leadership books remain a staple. But I was intrigued this year by a new genre: Books inspired by walking the famed Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in Europe. The reflections vary, but essentially help to find a deeper, slower, more authentic version of ourselves.
Here's the three I saw, in order of appearance: Vancouver consultant John Izzo's The Five Thieves of Happiness, U.S. consultant Victor Prince's The Camino Way, and Oxford, England, business coach Jackie Jarvis's In Pursuit of Slow.
San Francisco consultant Marilyn Paul didn't walk the Camino but attended a Sabbath dinner that led her to realize the importance of taking a one-day break each week (or less, if you can't manage that), which she shares in An Oasis in Time. And if you struggle with e-mail, Toronto consultant Ann Gomez has help with The Email Warrior. Both were strong considerations for the year's top 10.
Quick hits on books
- Best innovation book: The Power of Little Ideas by Wharton School Professor David Robertson with Kent Lineback offers a third way for innovation, beyond incremental or disruptive innovation.
- Best strategy book: If you’re in a Dogfight, Become a Cat by Columbia Business School executive-in-residence Leonard Sherman – which also was the best title of the year – offers a good primer on strategy with his own prescribed approach.
- Two more on marketing: Secret Sauce by New Zealand marketing consultant Harry Mill has a spicy formula, built around the acronym SAUCE, for adding punch to your ads, while consultant Tara-Nichole Nelson offers a new way to look at customers in The Transformational Consumer.
- Best book for entrepreneurs: The Hockey Stick Principles by Raleigh, N.C., serial entrepreneur Bobby Martin. The book has lots of counter-intuitive ideas to consider for business growth.
- Holiday reading suggestions: Becoming Facebook by entrepreneur Mike Hoefflinger takes you inside the social media enterprise most of us use weekly if not daily; Mean Men by management professor Mark Lipton probes into a chilling aspect of masculinity and entrepreneurship; and Class Clowns by Columbia Business School Professor Jonathan Knee shows how when business people turn their sights on education, the bottom-line results can be dreadful.